Posts Tagged ‘Alistair Cooke’

I’m sticking birthdays in quotes in the title of this blog entry because usually when you – or at least I – mention someone’s birthday, it’s to wish them a happy birthday.

And – not to put too fine a point on it – you can only do that when they’re… you know… alive.

Alfred Cooke was born 105 years ago today. You probably don’t recognise the name, because when he was 22 he changed his first name to what he became known as, literally worldwide: Alistair Cooke. Cooke died in 2004, weeks after he recorded his final Letter From America, and I still miss tuning in every week to hear his voice. Yes, I have the CDs, yes, I have the books (his collections, his histories, his America, and his biography by Nick Clarke, also sadly gone) but it’s not the same. It really isn’t.

I was introduced to Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America by a college tutor named John Ramm. He taught me a subject entitled “Government and Comparative Political Studies”, and as part of that we spent a year on British Government and politics, and another year spent 2/3 on America and 1/3 on China. Of course, the final exam was designed to get the student to compare and contrast the different ways different countries did things, whether it was how to get legislation passed, or the history of politics in that country.

Tuesday morning, we had ‘double politics’, and John would always start of the lesson by playing us a recording of that week’s Letter from America. This was in 1982, so the show had already been broadcast for the BBC for almost forty years. From then until 2004, I doubt there were more than half a dozen editions I didn’t hear, either on broadcast or within a few days afterwards.

One of the pleasures of listening to them now is undoubtedly the strange way that his own recollections of fifty or sixty years past triggers similar memories of mine. It’s not going too far to say that I’ve had memories sparked by a listen to the show that I’d genuinely forgotten happened. I still miss the show.

As far as I know, Cooke had no great love of comic books, but he was a fan of the comic strip, as anyone who heard his tribute to Charles Schulz could not have missed.

The other man? He was born 51 years after Cooke, on 20th November 1959; he also died before Cooke did, on 9th January 1998. He’d have been 54 today. As far as I know, he was never a huge fan of Cooke’s; I have no idea whether or not he knew of the coincidence of their birthdays – I never asked him. He’d probably have just shrugged and said something like “well, there you are – just shows to go, doesn’t it?”

Moreover, to be honest, he never had much interest in comics, commenting more than once that he just didn’t ‘get’ them. Not once though, in the thirty-three years I knew him did he even once denigrate comic books or those who read them. He just regarded reading and understanding them as skills he lacked.

248His name, as you’ll probably have guessed by now, was Michael Barnett and he was my brother.

As people who have been readers of this (and the previous) blog will know, I don’t tend to have a good 9th January; people steer clear of me, and I’m grateful for it. In my day job, when I had one, people communicated with me by email that day, and my staff went above and beyond by keeping everyone else away.

But unlike my parents, I have no problem at all with his birthday. It’s a day I relish, revelling in good memories (there aren’t that many bad ones) of the years I was privileged to have him as my “big bruvver”.

I often regret that he never got to know Phil, who was a shade over two years old when Mike died; he’d have enjoyed Philip’s bar mitzvah, and would have further enjoyed watching Phil grow up into the young man he’s become.

But since I’ve already mentioned comics, it seems fitting to mention that there’s a comic book that I cannot read without thinking of my brother.

Small digression: the very first published story I wrote was in the first issue of a short lived anthology entitled Trailer Park of Terror. The story, entitled, It’s Murder Out There had in the final panel, in the gutter, the single lettered line “For Mike, LB”.

Michael may not have ‘gotten’ comics, but he was never anything other than wholly supportive of my writing efforts, and took great satisfaction and pleasure in any success I had.)

Digression over. It’s Sandman #43, the third book in the Brief Lives arc.

An explanation is required, methinks.

Shortly after Mike died, at the tragically young age of 38, I really wasn’t much in the mood for comics. The family were still trying to make sense of what had just happened, and were still saying, in response to those who those who said “we don’t know what to say”, “no, we don’t know what to say to each other either”. Sure I read some comics, some old favourites, but I was just getting through the day.

At around this time, my closest friend, who’d emigrated to America three years earlier, invited me to visit, just to get out of the UK for a few days. It was with genuine gratitude that I accepted the invitation, and went over to stay with Ian and his family in Forest Hills.

Well, that gave me a problem of a different sort. Although I usually have no problem sleeping on airplanes, I knew that this flight would likely be different. I wanted to take something that I could enjoy reading, but was something I’d read before, but something that would take my mind away from the dreadful events of the previous couple of weeks. Sandman seemed perfect. I picked up the first collection and put it in my bag. Then I took it out… remembering the final story in the collection: The Sound of Her Wings, a nicely crafted tale, but one in which the character of Death shows her necessity in the cosmos. During the story, you see the deaths of several characters, characters that you only met for a couple of pages, but with Gaiman’s and Dringenberg’s skills, you actually cared about.


Even in the state I was in, I knew that was too close to home. Which wiped out The Doll’s House as well, since the story was included there as well, for some reason.

So I grabbed my copy of Brief Lives (the meaning of the words completely slipped past me, I’m afraid) from the bookshelf and packed that, as well as some others.

A few hours later, I’m on the aircraft, we’re pulling away from the terminal, then we’re in the air… and after reading the newspaper, I pull out the first of the books to read.

No, it wasn’t Brief Lives. As I recall (and for reasons you’ll understand in a paragraph or two, I remember this flight very well), it was my collection of Howard Chaykin’s Twilight. I finished it, and then picked up Brief Lives.

I’d forgotten how #43 starts, and I’d forgotten the character of Bernie Capax, a man of some 15,000 years of age. And how he dies in what he thinks is an accident, buried under a collapsed wall. His spirit, however, doesn’t realise he’s dead and he stands by the remains of the wall, in delighted surprise: “Not even a scratch.” When Death arrives, he’s, you’ll forgive the word, crushed. Then, in an attempt to convince himself that he didn’t do too badly, the following happens:

And you know…?

It helped. I have no idea why. No idea at all… but it helped.

I thought of what my brother had achieved in his thirty-eight years, and for a moment, just for a moment at that time, but later for longer, I was comforted by the line.

Mike lived what everyone gets: a lifetime.

Neil Gaiman was a friend back then, but not as close a friend as he became. It’s been one of the pleasures of our friendship that I’ve been able to tell him about this over the years, and how it mattered, when it mattered that something mattered.

So, on Mike’s birthday, raise a glass with me to his memory, eh? And if you have good memories of your family, or of friends who’ve passed on, then take a minute, and revel in them.

From the late Alistair Cooke’s Letter From America, a few days after 11th September 2001.

“Last Monday I woke up and as usual on Monday mornings I began to ponder what I might talk about this time.

I was, you might say, out of touch with what they now call “the real world” after two weeks’ absorption in the fantasy world of the United States Open Tennis Championships.

But first, as the anchormen say, the weather. I like to know if it’s cool enough for me to venture around the block.

So first then I turned on the weather channel and within 10 seconds I knew, all too well, what this talk would be about.”

Yep, Cooke knew precisely what he was going to talk about: Hurricane Erin…

That was Monday.

You can hear what he did talk about in the days following 9/11 here.

For some years, on the anniversary of 9/11, I posted on my old blog what I wrote in the days following, particularly about trying to get hold of my oldest and closest friend Ian, who was at work in his office in Wall Street when it happened… Some years ago, I figured I’d posted it often enough. But, as I’ve done sometimes on this new blog, I thought I’d put it up one more time here on this year’s anniversary.

Many things have changed in the twelve years since I wrote it, mainly as a natural consequence of the vicissitudes of life; I’m no longer working for the company I worked for, our children are much older, and Ian and I have known each other for over four decades now, rather than the thirty-odd years back then. If you’ve not read my blog before, the “Laura” referred to below is my ex-wife. We were still together back then, but as then, she’s still one of my closest friends and one of my favourite people on the planet.

Some people will have read some of the following before; some, not all, however.

11th September 2001, I was at work. In the UK.

I work for a company that’s owned by the same guys on the other side of the pond that own the Weather Channel. So, I’m walking to the bank. I’ve got a float to pick up for one of my people who is off to Cyprus to do a film shoot. It’s about five past two in the afternoon, British time. I’m just approaching the bank when my mobile rings. It rings with the Mickey Mouse Club theme tune, so I know it’s Laura calling.

I answer it. “Hey, sweetheart.”

“Don’t say anything,” comes the response. “Two planes have just crashed into the World Trade Centre. They think it’s terrorist. PHONE IAN **NOW**!

I think I’ve misheard. “What?” I ask.

She repeats it. I stand still in utter shock. I tell her I’ll call back. And then I stand there.


I notice that people are still walking around in London, chatting, smiling. I figure I’m one of the few people in the London streets who know.

Then, with trembling fingers, I start punching out the numbers of the direct office number of my best friend in the world.

I’ve known Ian since we were two years old. We grew up as much in each other’s houses as we did in our own. We were each other’s Best Men and each of us was the only person on the planet who knew that we were about to propose to our respective girlfriends before they did. We’ve shared confidences, experiences, overdrafts, our lives.

He’s the one person on the planet that I’m not related to by blood that if he phoned me at three in the morning and said “I need you here this afternoon” I’d drop everything and go running, no matter what else I had on.

And he works one block over from the World Trade Centre.

A lifetime’s worth of memories flow through my mind as I punch out the numbers. Laura’s advice was to phone now, since she knew that in short order the international lines would be solid. And then cut.

The phone rings once. It rings twice.

He picks it up.

“It’s me.” I say. That’s all I have to say.

“Hi,” he says. That’s all he says. That tells me more than I want to know. For Ian to answer with one word means there’s trouble.

He tells me the situation. (Remember, so far, only the two planes have hit. Nothing else. No Pentagon. The WTC is still standing…)

When the first one hit, he was meeting with a colleague. They’re on the 18th Floor of their building, three minutes walk from the WTC. They went up to the roof to see what had happened, what had caused that almighty BANG. As they got to the roof, they felt the heat blast and heard the second collision.

“I turned to him and said calmly and clearly, ‘let’s get the fuck out of here’,” Ian said. So we did. “Look, Lee, I’ve got to let people know I’m OK. I’ll call you later, but we’re all fine.”

I relaxed a bit. My friend was safe. At this time, of course, I hadn’t seen the television pictures….

I went to the bank, collected the cash and went back to the office… as I walked in, I found out about the Pentagon.

A short while later, just as I was telling my boss about Ian, the first WTC collapsed, and my heart sank through my backside.


Then the second one collapsed.

I tried to call Ian’s mobile. The phone lines were busy…

It got worse… A report of the plane crash in Pittsburgh (it was first reported here as being in Pittsburgh, not outside it) and the senior management turned to look at the CEO, whose mother lives there.

My boss just said quietly, “everybody out of the room, now,” as the CEO started dialling.

The rest of the day is now a blur. I remember phone calls to Laura and to various friends of mine, with mutual friends in America. I remember checking in on Warren Ellis’s DELPHI Forum where all the New York lot were checking in and letting people know they were ok.

I remember getting the train home in utter silence. You could have heard a pin drop on the train. I’ve never seen so many people reading the evening newspapers. Even the Diana death didn’t have this effect of sheer unadulterated hammer-to-the-guts shock. I can’t get my thoughts off of Ian. Yes, I know that the building’s collapsed inwards, but Ian’s one block over…

I got home and as I walk in, there’s a call on the answerphone just concluding. Laura had gone to bed. Philip was already in bed.

It’s Ian! I call him straight back but it’s an hour before I can get through the busy lines.

He’s safe… Forgive me, but in that moment, I was more relieved that he was safe than I was for any other person.

As he was walking down the 18 flights of stairs, he heard this huge whirring and rumbling sound. He didn’t know what it was… it was the collapse of the tower.

They got to the bottom of the building and found that they couldn’t get out. Rubble blocked the entrance. They managed to get into the next building, a hairdressers, and out of their back exit.

He and his staff made it to a friend of Ian’s on 40th Street. The friend, a few years back, was maitre’d of the Windows On The World restaurant.

After a while, Ian set out for home. The subways were stopped, so he walked…

Six hours later, he reached Forest Hills and his apartment.

That’s when I spoke to him. After his parents and his in-laws, I was the next call he made.

He sounded shaken, but relatively sane. A damned sight more sane that I think he had any reason to be.

We talked trivialities. We both had CNN on and I remember it being weird that we were watching the same programme, the same images appearing on each of our tv screens, 3,000 miles apart.

Both of us not saying what was in our minds. That if the buildings had collapsed like trees, not inwards, I wouldn’t have my best friend around any more.

The last 30 seconds of the phone call was the worst… both of us choking up. “Phone me tomorrow,” I said.

“Lee,” he said, “I’m thirty seven years old, we’ve been friends for 35 years, and I’m safe.”

“It’s because we’ve been friends for 35 years that you’re going to do it, OK?” I asked, a lot harder than I intended it.

There was a brief silence before he said “I hear you.”

“Ian,” I said.


A pause. “I’m used to having you around. Watch your back.”

“I love you too,” he said.

We’ve spoken twice a day since Tuesday. The last 30 seconds of each call leaves me almost tearful.

I want to be with him. I want to hug my best friend. I want to raise a glass with him in memory of those who didn’t make it, to the families who are now suffering.

To ask when the world stopped making sense? Well, that one I know. Around 8:45 am Eastern Time.

11th September 2001.

Some weeks later, I flew to New York to be with him and his family. The hammer-blow-to-the-guts feeling was still there, full force, the moment you crossed into American airspace and intensified once you left the airport.

Most of the trip has faded, as such things will, but there are three strong memories, one of which is mildly humorous if you’ll forgive it, and one further recollection that is among the most solid and strong of my life.

1. Whether you were or are a supporter of Tony Blair or not, his actions in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 had consequences for everyone in the United States who had a ‘British’ accent. I put ‘British’ in quotes because, as I’ve said before, for many Americans, there appear to be only three British accents: Dick Van Dyke’s ‘cockney’, Sean’s Connery’s Scottish, and Hugh Grant’s ‘English’. That there are hundreds of British accents seems to pass most Americans by. (Yes, I’m more than aware that the reverse is often true.)

But the moment I opened my mouth and my accent was heard by any New Yorker, blimey, they couldn’t do enough for me. Crossing the road first, getting a cab, even asking for a newspaper. Everyone couldn’t wait to thank me personally for Blair’s support, and to tell me how much they loved him, me and the whole of the United Kingdom. Returning to Ian’s apartment, we bumped into a neighbour who was walking his dog. Best part of an hour later, we left the conversation, but only after I’d been told the foregoing multiple, multiple times.

2. That love for the accent didn’t extend, however, to getting into public buildings. Everywhere we went, the moment my accent was heard, ID was required. (Ian’s kept his accent, and he also got used to fishing out ID regularly.) This is the amusing memory, since the first few times, even my passport was examined forensically by every security guard, and doorman.

On one occasion, I was pulling out some ID and my old BBC identification card, long out of date, but kept in the wallet for sentimental reasons, fell to the ground. It had a recognisable photo on it, but had expired six years earlier, in July 1995. The reaction from the guard was astonishing. That I had once been sufficiently ‘important’ to have a BBC ID card was enough. From then on, I never needed my passport – any time I needed to get into a public building, I flashed the BBC card. It got me instant access, and on another occasion, the following day, I was pulled out of line and rushed to the front of the queue, just because I held that in my hand. Truly astonishing.

3. The Tuesday I was there, Ian and I turned up at Central Park at seven in the morning… and started walking. We walked, and talked, and walked some more and talked some more. A few weeks after the events of 9/11, he needed to talk it through with his oldest friend and I needed to listen. I remember that we started talking about entirely irrelevant, trivial stuff (girlfriends we’d had prior to us both settling down, teachers we’d liked, getting drunk together) and then, somewhere about two in the afternoon, Ian started talking about that horrible, terrible day. When it got dark, we headed out of the park. We’d both needed the day. And that’s all that needs to be said about that.

And then there was my visit to Ground Zero. I don’t know what I can say to convey the experience. But maybe some mental snapshots of the visit will do it.

The smell of burning paper was everywhere. Look, I choose to think it was paper, so that’s what it was, OK? It smelled like someone had let off caps. Remember that cordite taste/smell? Imagine that everywhere from before you even leave the subway station. My throat was closing up as I approached the site. What I could see above/through the hoardings… well, my eyes wouldn’t focus properly on anything. I remember looking at a building that appeared to be just a black monolith, straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There were layers to the black, windows burned out, different levels, but my eyes couldn’t hold to them to see the anomalies. It was just blackness.

Standing opposite the memorial boardings, another thing struck me – there was a dome of silence at the site. You’d see people approaching, deep in conversation, and as they got closer, they’d fall silent… walk past, some heads raised, some lowered… pass by, some with a nod, some not… and then as they crossed the road away from the site, conversation would resume.

Very little crying; lots of holding back tears, yes, but far more anger, upset and determination. Lot of [silent] hugging.

Flags everywhere. On people, on things, on walls; stencilled, chalked, drawn, painted.

I was glad I’d gone, but was glad to leave.

Twelve years later, I can’t honestly say I think of 9/11 every day, every week, or even regularly. But on the anniversary of another day that, in Roosevelt’s words about Pearl Harbor, “will live in Infamy”, the memories are still there.

To those who lost loved ones, friends, colleagues or even mere acquaintances on that day, to the firefighters, police and emergency services who lost colleagues and fellow officers, and to everyone reading, I wish you a peaceful day, and a life free from worry, fear and concern.

New York, 2001

Us, a few years later, at a happier time, Phil’s bar mitzvah, November 2008.